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January, 26th 2010

Meet David Castillo, candidate for Congress in Washington’s third district

– Liz Mair

  David Castillo is an interesting guy.  Raised in Southwest Washington by a single mom in less than prosperous circumstances, he grew up to serve in the US Navy, attend the University of Washington and Gonzaga University, work in state government and serve in the Bush administration, ultimately becoming a financial advisor.

Now, he’s on yet another path-- one that could lead him to Congress.  Running in a potentially packed field to succeed outgoing Rep. Brian Baird, Castillo clearly doesn’t mind a challenge.  I spoke to him recently to discuss his candidacy, his position on some big issues, and some perhaps less dry subjects (you’ll have to read to the end of this post to learn more about those).  As in my interview with Jaime Herrera (which I’ll post later), I asked a standard set of questions, and got some good insight into who Castillo is, why he’s doing what he’s doing, and how he plans to win.  One of the themes that consistently pervaded my conversation with him was the importance of preserving opportunity—something deeply personal to him, but which also may resonate with quite a few voters in his part of the state.

Castillo entered the race in the middle of last year, after thinking it over for some time and debating it with his wife, Callie.  The decision stemmed from a conversation that started in December, 2008, during which he told me the couple narrowed in on the question of “where we were headed as a country.”  Said Castillo, “for me, someone who grew up in poverty, I’m the only son of a single mom who raised four of us on her own…  I was limited in the things I had around me growing up, but my Mom was very clear that the opportunities to succeed were boundless, and that’s a direct result of living here in the United States.  So, my wife and I were talking and we started really drilling down about what we thought that President Obama and Democrats in Congress were going to do and where they were taking the country and I really started to understand that the opportunity to succeed for my son and other children of his generation were going to be severely limited if the things that Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid and Barack Obama wanted to do were actually transpiring.”  Out of concern for that outcome, a candidacy was born.  As Castillo put it, “I finally just said, ‘look, I’m tired of grousing about this, I think it’s time for new leadership and a new voice for the people of the third district.’”  He decided to run in April, and began the race in earnest in June.  He’s been running ever since. [intro]

The biggest issue in the district, Castillo told me, is jobs.  While the area he now calls home—Olympia, the state capital and home to the locally infamous Evergreen State College—differs markedly from the population center of the district (Clark County, home to many Portland workers who prefer Washington’s tax structure), Castillo said people throughout the district are worried.  “We have an estimated unemployment in the district of about 15 percent, which is extremely high,” he told me, adding that “concern [about jobs] is the same here in the northern part of the district as it is in the central, more rural areas of the district, as well as in Clark County.”  For him, that means a message sharply focused on economic policy, and emphasizing his biography and private sector experience.  “Ultimately,” said Castillo, “we’re going to need to look for somebody—and this is a job interview for the people of the third congressional district—who’s had some experience in the private sector, understands that it’s the entrepreneurial spirit of America and individuals pursuing their dreams that create jobs, not the government.  That’s a message that we’ve been talking about for several months and that will carry forward throughout this campaign.”

Indeed, both Castillo and Herrera arguably have a substantial benefit afforded them over many of their fellow Republican contenders seeking to take over currently Democratic-controlled seats in Congress.  Washington operates a primary system in which the top two vote-getters advance to the general election, irrespective of their partisan affiliation.  On the one hand, as Castillo noted in our interview, that could mean that “theoretically, we could end up with two Republicans or two Democrats advancing to the general.”  But in truth, it creates a situation in which a significant incentive exists for candidates to compete for every vote, straight out of the gate.  It also eliminates the almost explicit need for candidates to run towards the base of their party in the early stages of a campaign, and veer towards the center in the latter months—which often creates a trap for candidates prone to flip-flopping and changes of position, or makes those seen as more “fringe” in practice unelectable. 

Per Castillo, this means that as a candidate, from the outset he has had to “communicate with a broad spectrum of the electorate in the third congressional district.”  In so doing, he’s reminding voters not just that he has “lived a life and grew up in small town America here in southwest Washington… a life that a lot of people in the district have lived and are certainly going through right now with economic struggles and trying to find out where that next paycheck is going to come from,” but also that he moved on from there, ultimately serving in government and starting a business—and seeing firsthand what allows jobs to be created, and what causes small businesses to fail. 

“I’ve had the experience of starting a business with some partners back in the 90’s and ultimately building that thing up and experiencing failure in that regard.  I’ve had to live through that, I’ve lived through having to go without a paycheck so I could pay my employees, I’ve lived through having to take a job as a landscaper in order to put food on my family’s table after that business went under,” Castillo told me.  Without a doubt, he brings a significant breadth and depth of experiences to the table, potentially enabling him to connect on a personal level with a larger swath of voters than your average candidate.  But in a district currently held by a Democrat, even a somewhat unconventional one as is Baird, it’s hard to tell at this stage how Castillo’s stances on the issues might play.

Certainly, the third district was home to some outrage over proposed Democratic health care reform over last summer, and Baird was a definite target of opponents keen on challenging him in the context of town hall meetings (he ultimately voted against the House health care bill).  Castillo told me that were he elected to Congress, assuming that Democrats succeed in getting their reform, he would “be a vote for repeal, if it passes in its current form.” 

“What we’re seeing is government attempting to control 1/6 of the economy,” he said, quickly adding that “ultimately, we can’t just be about as Republicans saying ‘no,’ we have to be offering some real-world solutions, some solutions that matter to people, and will make things better.  Health care, the cost of health care has grown, that’s a fact, you can’t get beyond it.  So, we need to address that.  But I don’t think we address it through government intervention, we address it by expanding the market, giving people a true choice in their health care providers.”  During our conversation, Castillo argued that health care reform should focus on allowing consumers to buy across state lines and prioritize choice in insurance policies, which he considers to be plagued by excessive coverage mandates.  He told me, “the health care insurance market is closed, it’s not open and that’s because of the federal government.  That’s a no-cost solution that we could do immediately that would I think just bring down the cost of health insurance and expand it.  In addition, the mandates that are placed on health insurance companies with regard to what they are required to cover are ridiculous.  In a state like Washington, when you combine what the state is requiring with what the federal government is requiring, you’re getting into upwards of 55 different procedures… someone like me, I don’t need OB-GYN insurance.”  Like other conservatives advocating for free-market health care reform, Castillo is not opposed to all government action to deal with fundamental health care worries, though.  “I’m realistic and I understand that there are those folks who slip through the cracks particularly with regard to pre-existing conditions, and I do believe that’s where the government can play a role, particularly at the state level.”  He favors a set-up that would ensure that three or four different private plans are available to those who find themselves in such circumstances, “to make sure that they get coverage.”  He added, “I think there’s some common sense solutions and some solutions that are based in free market principles and conservatism that can solve this problem,” but that “we’re obviously going in the exact opposite direction.”

Like many Republicans who share his views on health care, Castillo also takes issue with the stimulus—and the way he talks about it suggests he could well be developing some one-liners perfect for his stump speech and the rubber chicken circuit.  When asked about the program originally intended to create or save jobs, he quipped “The only thing that the stimulus has done is stimulate the liberal imaginations of politicians who think they know how to spend your money better than you do.”  Many Americans would agree.  Back in November, a Rasmussen survey indicated that 51 percent of those surveyed wanted to cancel the rest of the stimulus. 

Gallup polling, meanwhile, has recently shown that many Americans are concerned about the deficit, though the national debt remains a bigger target for Castillo.  He told me, “We’re spending something upwards of $100 billion a year on interest payments on that debt alone, and as a financial advisor and somebody who understands the bond market, I realize that’s completely unsustainable.”  At first glance, that may sound like an argument that may work on an intellectual level, but perhaps not a gut one in a district suffering significant unemployment currently represented by a Democrat.  But, it’s worth noting, and Castillo pointed out in explaining why he voted for I-1033, a fiscal policy initiative on the November 2009 ballot, that “it didn’t pass obviously statewide, but it did pass in the third congressional district.”  Like Baird’s vote against the House health care bill, that result might be seen as a buttress to Castillo and Republicans’ arguments that running as a fiscal conservative, even in an area represented by a Democrat for some time in Congress, is safe ground this cycle. 

Of course, Castillo is a conservative in other areas, too—and it’s less clear how that may play with voters.  While the third district is undoubtedly more conservative that the seventh (i.e., Seattle)—it gave Bush 50 percent of the vote in 2004, and voted for him over Gore in 2000—it’s also not, say, the fourth.  Castillo voted against R-71, the measure that was ultimately approved by Washington voters and enshrined the state’s legal recognition of domestic partnerships.  He also says he is pro-life, and considers that the science regarding climate change “is not settled.”  In an area struggling with high unemployment, undoubtedly voters do have more pressing issues to think about, to the extent they disagree with Castillo on topics like these at all.  However, his positions on such issues also may be used by local and national Democrats to paint a picture of Castillo as a more conventional Republican than he might appear on spec.  One point that does bear mentioning, however, is that in addition to displaying a deeper understanding of health care policy, in particular, than many Republicans—and a more overt commitment to advancing conservative health care policy rather than just blocking or undoing liberal reform—Castillo also has some different political heroes from what one typically hears out of Republican congressional candidates.  While he lists Reagan as a favorite, he offers significant, effusive praise for Margaret Thatcher and Abraham Lincoln.  In both cases, his admiration is tied to what each figure did to advance opportunity.  Castillo told me, “I love Margaret Thatcher and one of the reasons I think she’s very relevant today is because of the mess she inherited when she was elected prime minister, a government that was tilting extremely leftward, and was really inhibiting the opportunity for the people of Great Britain to achieve their dreams.  She did a lot to change that, and I think she brought a measure of freedom that hadn’t been seen in years.”  He added that, “Lincoln I think is the greatest President to ever live.  He imagined a future for this country and he was optimistic about the future of America, and I remain that way as well.”

Unsurprisingly, however, he is not so positive in grading President Obama and Nancy Pelosi on their performance so far (he gives them a D+ and an F, respectively), but like a lot of Republicans, he has some kind words for Hillary Clinton.  “I think she’s probably the most talented member of the Obama administration,” he told me, though adding that he thinks she’s been “shackled.”

True to his Evergreen State roots, too, he says that he’s a PC, not a Mac (a close friend is a longtime Microsoft employee)—but that he sees the “upside” to Apple technology.  However he grades Obama, like him, he’s a BlackBerry guy, too—but adds that if Verizon offered the iPhone, he’d make the switch.

For now, it’s another swap he’s focused on, though—that of blue to red in the third district, come November.  Stay tuned: This will be a race to watch.

 

Editorial note: A correction was made re: Castillo's vote on I-1033 pursuant to a clarification by his campaign: He voted for the initiative, not against it.  This is reflected in the above text.

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